Review: John Williams – The Berlin Concert

There’s no shortage of cultural pessimists who complain about the dwindling societal status of classical music. Until the middle of the twentieth century, they say, classical music was part of popular culture. Today, it’s nothing more than a shrinking niche.

That might be true if you look at record sales and concert attendance. But dig deeper, and you notice how the classical music tradition influenced much of the culture that supposedly supplanted it. And the best example is the Hollywood blockbuster.

Wagner in space

What part of the success of movies like ET, Jurassic Park or Harry Potter would be due to their music? My guess is 60 percent. Up to 80 percent for the Star Wars movies. If they didn’t have the best soundtrack of all time, their attraction would be inexplicable.

Yoda Star Wars music
“Pseudo-profound Muppet, I am.”

The man responsible for the music in all those films is John Williams, a composer who brought the sound of late-romantic composers such as Wagner and early modernists such as Stravinsky and Holst to just about every cinema theatre and living room. And who – at ninety years of age – is now embraced by the classical music establishment. Both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic welcomed him for a concert and album devoted to his work. You can’t get more canonized than that.

John Williams Beethoven
John Williams (on the right). Beethoven (on the wall).

Goosebumps

If you needed one, listening to the recording of The Berlin Concert is a reminder that Williams wrote some of the most exciting music since World War II. And I mean that in an almost physical way. Doubtlessly nostalgia plays a part in it, but I get goosebumps every time I hear the Flying Theme from ET or the Throne Room & Finale music from Star Wars. The Berlin Philharmonic devotes all of its considerable forces to this project. The result is both a breathtaking musical experience and an opportunity to brush up on your knowledge of all the instruments in a symphonic orchestra. Not in the least the percussion and brass sections.

Winning formula

There’s one thing that Williams does better than anyone else: conveying immensity in music. Immensity of emotion, like in the heartbreaking music from Schindler’s List, which is inexplicably not included on this album. Or immensity of space, like in the theme from Jurassic Park, which immediately conjures up rolling planes with grazing brontosauruses – or whatever they are (ask your local six-year-old).

His themes often combine a strong rhythmic drive (hence the percussionists working overtime) and yearning melodies that quickly reach their climax – then start over again.

That’s it, that’s the formula. Oh, and trumpets. Lots of trumpets. Williams even asked for American trumpets to be used in this Berlin concert. Because they make more noise than European trumpets, apparently. Next time someone complains to you about the uniformity of modern global culture, hit them with this trumpet factoid to shut them up.

You can’t blame Williams for sticking to his winning musical formula. As a blockbuster composer, that’s what you’re paid to do. While George Lucas asked him to write something in the style of Gustav Holst’s The Planets for Star Wars, subsequent directors requested something in the style of John Williams. And that’s what he gave them. The Superman March, Raiders March, … all great pieces. But put them on the same record and it soon gets tedious.

That’s why the more ‘atypical’ pieces on this album are such a relief. Like the opening Olympic Fanfare and Theme, which shows an affinity with the populist music of Aaron Copland. The avant-garde sounds of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or the folk tunes of Far and Away.

But the absolute high point is the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra. Because it seems to tell a story, rather than just support one.

On second thoughts …

Who am I kidding? Yes, the elegy is a fine composition. I’ll keep that in mind for whenever I need to sound sophisticated when discussing the oeuvre of John Williams (you never know where life takes you).

But the real high point of this album comes at the end: the Imperial March from Star Wars. Not since Mozart’s Queen of the Night did evil sound so terrifying and yet so alluring. If this is what the dark side sounded like, I would have joined them in a second.

And ended up as this guy.

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